Sunday, 30 October 2011

In which I slate something I both enjoyed and received for free

I remember watching an episode of Masterchef where they made the contestants cater for a formal dinner at an Oxford college. In classic, overdramatising Masterchef style, they went on about how austere and grand it all was and how the fusty old fellows and overprivileged students would all be expecting amazing food. What misrepresentation. The only thing formal about formal hall is that you have to wear gowns. No one gets off on that (apart from parents when they come to visit) - I'm sure most perceive it as a minor inconvenience. It is a nice thing to do on occasion but I don't think many people would ACTUALLY miss it if it went. And no one treats it as equivalent to eating out. I am attached to college but often, it does feel like the 'most beautiful prison in the world.' Quotation marks because I thought that was a great way to describe it (when you feel negative towards it) but it was not my coinage. Anyway, it's nice to get out.  I still decided it would be interesting to do a review of formal hall food. Actually, this was even better than standard formal hall food since it was for a special dinner where they tend to push the boat out a bit. I don't usually like to pay for the privilege of going to formal hall. Usually if I go it's because it's a special college event - to raise money for charity or when they put on Christmas dinner. My friends made jokes 'hey why don't you put this on your food blog?' but actually I've decided that would be quite a good idea.
Except I only decided it would be a good idea halfway through the starter. Poached trout with a vine leaf stuffed with crab, a dill sauce and some leaves. The sauce was nothing special, the trout was really nicely looked but appeared to have not been seasoned at all. Perhaps because seasoned trout plus salty vine leaf would be overpowering? Who knows. The crab filling of the vine leave was bland but also a bit bitter. I have nothing to say about the leaves.
Mmm venison. Nicely cooked, though a bit cold. The perils of mass catering. The pink fir potatoes were interesting. They were delicious potatoes but the same problem as with the trout prevailed: no salt. Although my friend said that hers was almost TOO salty. So perhaps that's a mass catering thing again where they attempted to season everything at once and it didn't work out. The portabello mushroom and fruit stuffing was interesting. I love portabello mushrooms but it was overstuffed and the fruit did not taste like a sweet part of a savoury dish but a pudding. It went OK with the slightly too watery but richly flavoured gravy. This is the first time I had romesco cauliflower. They look weirder but just taste like cauliflower. Again, there was no salt on mine. This wouldn't have been an issue if it weren't for the fact that they didn't put salt and pepper on the tables and it felt rude to ask.
Pudding. Ah, mousse. Hall is famous for its mousses. It seems to think it's a fancy way of poshing everything up. I still have welded into my memory the taste of tomato and avocado mousse. It was NOT pleasant. When I saw there was mousse for pudding, I was not filled with joy. But the mousse turned out to be the most delicious part of the dessert. Chocolate and hazelnut cake was rock hard. It was so dry it reminded me of the dessert. The taste was alright but definitely what sticks with me is the aridness. The fruit on the side reeked of 'we opened some tins' but I love tinned fruit so didn't feel too incensed by that. Raspberry compote was tooooo tart.

The point of this entry was just that I thought it'd be fun. But also to demonstrate that yeah, formal hall is a nice tradition. Yeah, the nice (sometimes free) dinners that are put on are fun. But I wouldn't miss it THAT much. If getting rid of it meant reducing the deficit of College's catering functions and consequently that future students were charged less, I'd happily agree to its abolishment. And this is me talking about particularly nice, formal hall food: the regular canteen food I could be MUCH more savage about.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Ragu no. 2

Just so you know, you should've imagined the title of the post to the tune of mambo no. 5. The reason I am writing about another ragu was because the last one was AWFUL (slight exaggeration) and this one was a) better and b) made with oxtail.
Looks very visceral, no? But it tastes delicious. The idea came about after my friend and I were in the kitchen making burgers and some other kitchen users came along and made Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's spaghetti bolognese. They were fully equipped with really nice cooking stuff and reaaaally nice ingredients (Maldon salt, don't mind if I do) and the way they pored over the book just looked so idyllic. (I took a photo of them but it would be creepy to upload it without their permission, it would be weird to upload it with their permission and also my camera is wank.) Our burger making, on the other hand, although successful, was the result of whatever cooking things we could scrape together from the forgotten washing up in the kitchen. Anyway, seeing them cook spag bol made me crave it. This progressed to 'hey let's make ragu' to 'hey let's use oxtail'. We did it (sort of) properly. I even lugged my own cooking stuff down the eighty-two stairs. I AM COMMITTED.

Commitment was KEY to this recipe. It took around 4.5 hours to make. Academic work took a backseat on that day. I don't know what my excuse is for other days. We adapted this recipe .

Oxtail Ragu
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 stick of celery, chopped
3 bay leaves
A few sprigs of rosemary, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped
1kg oxtail, jointed
1tbsp tomato puree
750ml oz red wine

Salt & pepper
Season the oxtail all over and brown. Remove onto a plate.
Sweat the onions and garlic for 2 minutes.
Add the carrots, celery and rosemary. Fry until softened.
Add the tomato puree and mix. Season.
Add half of the wine and keep on a high heat for at least 2 minutes.
Re-add the oxtail to the pan.
Lower the heat to a simmer and let simmer for 3 - 4 hours. Ours needed 4. We kept checking and stirring the mixture and when the liquid had almost disappeared, we added a glug more wine.
When the oxtail is tender, remove from the pan. Tear the meat off the bones.
Meanwhile, add any remaining wine to the sauce and simmer until thickened. Check the seasoning.
Add the oxtail back to the sauce and toss with pasta.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Recipe - Baked Eggs on Squash Tortillas

My new favourite way to cook eggs is BAKE THEM. I made this because I couldn't decide whether to have this or this for dinner. So I combined the two. In another post, I discussed juevos rancheros and how it's probably my favourite breakfast. This recipe, as you'd expect, had a flavour sensation very similar to juevos rancheros but I prefer this because the spicy sauce and creamy yolks from the eggs go really well with squash. As delicious as it would've been for breakfast, I had it for dinner. But then I think it's stupid that there are conventional foods to have for certain meals. And this meal exemplifies that: to the Mexicans it'd seem like we had breakfast for dinner. EAT EVERYTHING ALL THE TIME. 

This recipe fed 2 VERY WELL.

1 medium squash
2 cloves garlic, chopped
cayenne pepper
olive oil
salt, pepper
2 small onions, diced
2 chillis, chopped
4 large tortillas
cheese (as much as you like)
Peel and chop the squash into bite size pieces. Place on a baking tray well spread out. Sprinkle with olive oil, cayenne pepper, the chopped garlic and salt and pepper. Roast for around 25 minutes (until soft) at 220°.
When the squash is almost roasted, fry the onions and chilli. Add the roasted squash once it is done and then fry on a low heat, stirring frequently until soft and melty but still with some texture i.e. not a mush. 
Place some squash mixture into the middle of each tortilla, top with cheese and fold into a pretty shape.
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large chilli, chopped
1 tsp chilli powder
4 tbsp tomato puree
salt, pepper
4 eggs

Make the spicy tomato sauce. Fry the onion, garlic and chilli softly until the onion is almost browned.
Add the chilli powder and tomato puree, stir. 
Add enough water to just cover the mixture. Let simmer on a medium heat for ten minutes to thicken. 
Season with salt and pepper.
Spread the mixture out onto a baking tray/dish, ensuring to try and keep it as evenly spread as possible.
Carefully crack each egg onto the mixture, avoiding any overlap. 
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. 

Serve on top of the squash wraps. I was too hungry to photograph. Also how d'you like the colour of my carpet? Mmm.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Contrast and Compare - Review: Cafe Opium, Shanghai 30s

That's a Bright Eyes song in the title by the way. I always find it quite difficult to compare the experiences of different restaurants. I try my best but it's difficult to distinguish between the different shades of good. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to do a direct comparison between two different places both serving Chinese food. One was Cafe Opium for a lunch which had proved very difficult to arrange but worked out in the end. We all had high hopes and also were very hungry. Everyone was enthused by the decor (very dark and tasteful but with lots of lanterns) but unfortunately the food left everyone but me disappointed.
The egg fried rice pictured above was the best thing about their meals. And even that was only 8 out of 10.
My food, on the other hand, did nothing but please. I was initially hesitant when the spare ribs came and I found them cloyingly sweet but my noodle dish was the right levels of sweet and sour and salty. The noodles appeared freshly made and had just the right texture and off-set the tender chicken and prawns really well. Unfortunately, everyone else described their dish as tasting of nothing. So then I felt guilty for taking them all there to try the place. This guilt intensified when I went to the amazing Shanghai 30s for dinner later that day.

The first time I went to Shanghai 30s was on my 20th birthday. I'd decided to take my parents punting which was always going to be risky. Surprisingly, it was quite calm (quote from Papa: 'of course I know how to control a boat, I'm Bangladeshi) until the last few seconds where the broken lock of the boat resulted in a stressful episode with my brother falling in the river in front of lots of people I knew and some strangers. After we'd bought him some new clothes, we went to Shanghai 30s. Sizzling seafood in pepper and honey sauce, beef and tomato stew and fried rice. Also some other things which I now forget but I remember that it was all excellent despite having no detail or photos to share. That wasn't just a one off it appears.
Even the interior seemed somehow better than Cafe Opium: more authentic. As if the restauranteurs had just hobbled together what they could and come out with a beautiful, atmospheric result which reminded me instantly of Memoirs of a Geisha/Chinese Cinderella and all that.
The fried rice too was better. This may have been because it wasn't just egg fried, it was Shanghai vegetable fried. Soft and fluffy with flecks of savoury sweetness from the peas. Then followed my second tofu experience. Again, an excellent one. This time very differently prepared to last time. Coated in sichuan pepper, herbs and some sort of breadcrumb revealing a gooey but flavoursome centre. The dry toasted sesame seeds scattered over were NOT just there for decoration - they added a different type of solid texture which I loved. A nice contrast to the zingy spring onions alongside.
Pork 'a la Shanghai' was similarly glorious. Rich and thick and meaty, it provided a direct contrast with the over-sweetness of the ribs from earlier. The fresh spring onions again stopped the dish from being too heavy. At the end of the meal, we were informed that we'd benefit from some offer they had on so the bill came to half the price we thought it would. The food is so good I think it is worth MORE than full price so at half price this was a STEAL. Definitely my top 5 places in Oxford. I only wonder if the open half empty cigarette packets in the 'waiting area' are for show or for smoking.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Recipe - Carbonara

The very unsuccessful meal (roast lamb) I cooked last week did have one thing to commend itself. A dinner guest kindly bought some profiteroles from the Sainsbury's underneath the building where all the freshers live. She also bought some double cream to go with it. A lengthy pre-profiterole conversation ensued about what's the 'correct' thing to eat with profiteroles. I don't know whether it was right but Sainsbury's extra thick double cream went down a treat. Anyway, as delicious as it was, we didn't want the profiteroles to detract from the delicious of the chocolate so I was left with almost a whole tube of extra thick double cream.

I also had some leftover eggs (I made eggs over the weekend, a recipe will follow sooooon) and everyone knows eggs + cream = carbonara. Actually, eggs and cream both fall in that weird category where they can make lots of different savoury and sweet things. But I love the savoury and also I love carbonara. Anyway, I thought I'd put 'my' recipe up. I only ever really make carbonara when I have leftover cream/sour cream/creme fraiche/similar so the recipe is always slightly different. It's always quite good but then it's meat and cheese and eggs so why wouldn't it be? This time it was particularly good though - I think this was because I used oak smoked bacon and a little red leicester cheese (I had that to use up too).
This recipe feeds 5.
500g linguine
200ml extra thick double cream
2 eggs
8 rashers oak smoked bacon cut into very small pieces
6 medium sized mushrooms, each cut into 6
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
handful of basil, finely chopped
50g mature cheddar
20g red leicester

Heat the bacon in a frying pan and wait for the fat to render. Add the onion, garlic and mushroom to the bacon pan and fry everything until the bacon is cooked and crisping.
'Pour' the cream into a bowl. Crack the two eggs into it and whisk into a homogenised mixture. Add a little salt and mix again.
Boil the pasta. As soon as it is just cooked, drain, reserving a little cooking water with the pasta.
Pour in the cream&egg mixture and cheese and mix quickly (so the egg doesn't scramble)
Add the bacon mixture, black pepper and the basil and stir through the pasta.

There was a salad to be served with this but we were so absorbed in meat and cheese and cream that we forgot. I might eat it ALL for lunch tomorrow though to test the theory (which I don't believe) of whether only salad can be filling if eaten in large quantities.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Review - The Jericho Cafe

I recall a stupid conversation that my contrary friend, my earnest friend and I were having on the walk back from Port Meadow in Oxford. I was asking them about whether they DO things with their partners. As in, activities. Yeah, it was a really stupid conversation but I was worried that people would think I was weird for not doing activities and shit. From this conversation, we ascertained that Earnest likes to do activities (go for walks etc) whereas Contrary was happy doing nothing. I'm probably more in the latter camp because I hate the cinema (IT'S NOT THAT WEIRD) but I do like going out to eat so that happens quite a lot. Anyway, the reason that this is (tangentially) relevant is because this last weekend, I decided to experiment by Doing Things with my non-friend. I didn't want to stray too far out of my comfort zone so the Activities often involved eating too. But in a more structured, activity-like way. Brunch in particular always seems like more of an Activity than other meals so we tried that.

In my mind, going to brunch will always be a grown up thing to do. And I LOVE that about it: the whole ceremony of deciding to 'go out for breakfast' and then taking a nice walk in the crisp weather followed by food and weekend papers. Obviously I am aware that in reality, people choose to go for brunch because they have very little time to go for walks and read life & style pages in the papers in the week because they're busy making money to finance said brunch. But I still like to entertain the idea that when I see people out for brunch, I'm seeing but one snippet of their perfect, serene lives. I don't think I've ever written anything more bourgeois. I also don't think I'm using bourgeois in the right context. Anyway, this ideal is helpfully upheld by the existence of Jericho, a 'kooky', 'bohemian' 'hangout' for 'yuppies' in Oxford. I don't know if it is actually any of those things or even if it tries to be but it has lots of very good restaurants and has the added advantage of being on the other side of town and so facilitates escaping college/essays/life. It was a toss up between Jericho Tavern and Jericho Cafe. The Cafe prevailed because I'd never been there before. 
Correct choice - although I've never had brunch at the Jericho Tavern, the quality of food at the Cafe just pipped the very good food of the Tavern to the post. And it's slightly cheaper. Cafe breakfast: £7.25 for sausage, bacon (which I swapped for another sausage), toast, beans, mushrooms, eggs and a hot drink. My friend had scrambled eggs on toast with roasted red peppers with a side of two veggie sausages. Food envy again: the veggie sausages were the best I've ever seen/tasted and I've made a mental note to call and ask where they're from tomorrow. Not that the meat ones were at all lacking - succulent, not too salty and porky. None of that disguising the taste of the meat with other things. The scrambled eggs were ALMOST there but just a little bit overdone for my liking. But still delicious - not like the hardened mess that I 'enjoyed' at Patisserie Valerie a couple of weeks ago. The mushrooms, however, were perfect. None of that weird wateriness that seems to be the most frequent gripe I have with breakfast mushrooms. Beautiful. I must also add that my experience may be coloured by the fact that I had my first ever sip of Rio at this brunch and since then, things have seemed brighter. I can't believe I went this long without having ever tried it.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Recipe - Sea bass with red pepper and potato salad

Hello, (my three) readers. Have you missed me? I have been busy moving rooms twice, fighting 'fresher's flu' and complaining about the kitchen facilities. And the flies. I'll do a bit of the last two in this post so you know what you've been missing out on.

I was enjoying a beautiful, high ceiling 18th century room. Its only flaw was the flies which gathered by the window slowly throughout the day. Turns out I'm not OK with this. I always thought that flies didn't bother me. And they don't when there's just one of them buzzing in and out of your room in a friendly manner. But THIS many made me feel sick/think of death/feel like I was living with a corpse/question my own existence. Thankfully, the lovely folks at the bursary managed to rehouse me in an equally big though less high ceilinged room. Furniture stealing accusations aside, it was perfect. Except for the kitchen.

The kitchen is half way down the corridor. This doesn't sound far unless you know how long the corridor is. Add in a few fire doors and it is a real pain to get to. It's shared with 16+ people. Now, the problem with sharing a kitchen with people you don't know so well is not that they're always in there taking up room and using your stuff but the WASHING UP. There are MOUNTAINS of it. Leading me to the conclusion that if I don't want to have my things used and then not cleaned, I must leave the things in my room. Despite the 4 doors between me and the kitchen. Cooking is quite the logistical operation now: it involves much planning so I'm not constantly walking back and forth. I've taken to chopping things in my room and getting the butcher to do whatever's required to the meat. It's all very much centred around working out how to do it in the fewest stages whilst at the same time leaving enough trips so that I can carry everything. Yes, this is a white whine, but I attempted to make a roast last night. It was underdone (well, just quite rare) which thankfully wasn't a problem for my guests but definitely was a problem for me. I had no masher to mash the roasted root vegetables with because a friend with a quite good but very far away kitchen had borrowed it. Worst of all, the 'gravy' was a strange pallid colour. This was partly because I was trying to cook for someone who can't eat gluten without any gluten free ingredients.

ANYWAY - I have managed to cook something vaguely successful. This is down to the fact that it was very simple to cook. I'll write the recipe exactly as I did it to convey an understanding of how arduous the whole process was.

Sea bass with red pepper and potato salad
This recipe serves 4.
Cube 3 large potatoes and cut 3 large peppers into small-ish chunks in your room which will now constantly smell faintly of food.
Place the cubed potatoes on a baking tray covered in foil to ensure minimal washing up. Drizzle with salt, olive oil and pepper (if you can find someone to borrow some from since yours went mysteriously missing)
Place in the oven at 220. Go and ask someone if the oven is working - it appears to be eerily silent. Leave to roast for 15 minutes.
In the meanwhile, make the dressing for the salad- finely chop 4 cloves of garlic, 6 anchovies, 1 tbsp of capers, a liberal handful of basil, juice of half a lemon and olive oil. Place in the dish that the salad will eventually be served it.
Take the roasted red peppers to the kitchen and place in the oven with the potatoes. Leave for another 15 minutes. Curse yourself for failing to bring the chopping board and knife to the kitchen to wash up.
Slash the skin of the sea bass (4 fillets). Rub with salt, pepper and oil. After the potatoes and peppers have been in the oven for 15 minutes, place the sea bass fillets on top. Bake for 12 minutes.
After it's done, place the sea bass fillets on a serving dish. Or, in my case, a melamine plate. Transfer the potatoes and red peppers into the serving dish with the dressing in it. Realise that it's far too small to adequately mix things in then return to the baking tray and try and dress it in there.
Make excuses to everyone about how it might taste awful because of the crappy kitchen facilities. Live with the smell of garlic on your soft furnishings for the next week.